Object Lessons: A Better Way to Teach Purity

He used a familiar object lesson in his sermon, one that made my blood run cold: A rose, once beautiful, whose petals were gradually torn off by failed love and sexual mistakes, leaving it ugly and unwanted.

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This summer, my little sister (who’s no longer very little at all) went to her last year of Christian summer camp. Up until I turned sixteen, we’d both attended the same camp every year with borderline religious devotion. Some of my most spiritually enriching moments in middle and high school took place with girls I’d only just met, with only stars standing between our wide, wondering eyes and our God. The crafting, canoeing, and otherwise adventuring called us back to the outdoors every year—but most importantly, there were the Bible lessons. I’ve learned powerful lessons in faith, forgiveness, and the unfaltering power of Christ at summer camp.

So it was a shock this year when, upon her return from an otherwise encouraging week, my sister somberly said, “You would have hated the main preacher.” Her discomfort, which she subsequently detailed, turned my stomach.

The teacher this year, an elderly man who was preaching exclusively to young girls, decided to discuss sexual purity. Setting aside the uncomfortable dynamic of an older man lecturing hundreds of teenage girls about sex (which warrants a post of its own,) it was his choice of words that truly disturbed me. He used a familiar object lesson in his sermon, one that made my blood run cold: A rose, once beautiful, whose petals were gradually torn off by failed love and sexual mistakes, leaving it ugly and unwanted.

When the church teaches young people about sex, it usually splits the conversation into two groups, divided by gender. This is wise when the room is full of teenage hormones, but as a result, I think many young men—who have their own separate talk about guarding their hearts—are often unaware of the way sexual purity is comparatively taught to their sisters in Christ.

Many young men—who have their own separate talk about guarding their hearts—are often unaware of the way sexual purity is comparatively taught to their sisters.

The rose, irretrievably reduced from beauty to trash, is far from the only object lesson used to teach Christian girls about sex. While my home church has largely avoided such rhetoric, it is alarmingly present in the larger Christian culture.

Some youth groups pass around a cup of water, have everyone spit in it, and then ask if anyone still wants to drink it, the implication being that a girl who has had sex outside of marriage could never be sexually desirable again. Similarly, sometimes sexuality is represented by chewed gum, another consumable resource that becomes utterly undesirable after a single use. Still other churches ask us to imagine a brand new bike taken on a joyride by a stranger, the result being a broken, banged-up bicycle that would still be usable by its real owner, but far less fun—a metaphor that literally reduces a girl to something that is “ridden.”

In all of the above examples, the boy in the object lesson is still a human being making conscious choices—ripping petals from the rose, spitting in the cup, chewing the gum, or riding the bike. To the contrary, the girl in all of these examples is an inanimate object defined entirely by her sexuality.

Women being reduced to objects isn’t a revolutionary storytelling technique. All too often, women in media are acted upon, rather than taking action for themselves; they are observers, not participants, of the actions around them. They are potential sexual conquests, love interests, sidekicks, or (often in Christian media) victims to be rescued by heroic men. Women’s purpose, in too many of the stories we tell, is to support the destinies and narratives of men.

Women’s purpose, in too many of the stories we tell, is to support the destinies and narratives of men.

So why do we represent women with objects when teaching about sex?

Because women being treated like objects is our cultural default. Because it’s what we’re used to seeing. Because even Christians, who are called to be “not of the world” (John 17:16,) inevitably absorb dangerous ideas from the world anyway. It’s easier to treat female sexuality as something that can be used up and thrown away than it is to radically affirm God’s divine design for sex: a gift to both men and women, which can hurt both people if it’s misused.

Object lessons like the ruined rose treat affection as something that is destroyed if it isn’t reciprocated, draining a young woman of the potential to love again. The reality is that people who have been hurt love differently, not less, in the future. The right boy will always lead a girl, hand-in-hand, back to the cross; but the wrong boy will send her running, in tears, to fall on her knees at that selfsame cross, and return to her first love, Jesus Christ. Love is not a consumable resource that can be drained dry by use. There is no heartbreak so significant that the love of God cannot restore the potential for future affection.

The right boy will always lead a girl, hand-in-hand, back to the cross; but the wrong boy will send her running, in tears, to fall on her knees at that selfsame cross, and return to her first love, Jesus Christ.

Likewise, images like the cup—filled with the saliva of countless boys—imagine the girl as entirely destroyed by sexual sin, but the boy as largely intact, despite the truth that premarital sex hurts both people. The Bible warns both men and women against sexual impurity, and the woman is no more responsible for a sexual mistake than the man. We are all held to the same high standard of holiness.

In addition, stories like the battered bicycle explain female sexuality as something that exists only for use by men, not something that women have to navigate on their own terms. Yes, girls struggle with lust, too—and we all seem to think we’re the only one.

Perhaps most importantly, when one in six women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, the church must steer clear of language that fails to distinguish between consensual intimacy, which a woman chooses, and sexual abuse, which is never the woman’s fault. I have spoken to too many young women who, after having been abused, imagined themselves as roses with the petals torn off, so damaged by their mistreatment that no one else could ever love them.

I have spoken to too many young women who, after having been abused, imagined themselves as roses with the petals torn off, so damaged by their mistreatment that no one else could ever love them.

All this begs the question: If object lessons are ineffective, how do we teach Christian girls about the importance of sexual purity? Guarding your heart is still wise, and waiting until marriage for sexual intimacy is God’s divine design. How do we cast shame aside in favor of holy respect for God’s gift of sex? How do we treat both men and women as sexual beings, responsible to God for how they behave?

Thankfully, we are blessed with the best teaching example of all: Jesus Christ, who explained spiritual truths through stories (parables) all the time.

Jesus uses object lessons frequently in his parables, but even when people are represented by things, the things are taking action—a lamp shining, salt preserving, seeds sprouting (or failing to do so,) etcetera. In these examples, the objects are also used to represent both genders, not merely to represent women while men remain active participants in the plot.

When the parables specifically discuss women, the women are dramatically active in the events that take place.

When the parables specifically discuss women, the women are dramatically active in the events that take place.

In Luke 15:8–10, Jesus represents human beings as coins, and God as a woman who has lost one of the coins. This story communicates that God values every single person no matter how many have already returned to him. It also radically uses a woman to represent God.

In Luke 18:1–17, a widow who relentlessly petitions for her rights is used to represent a Christian who is persistent in prayer. The male judge in the story is disinterested in the widow’s plight, but she is so determined that the judge eventually agrees to help her. By comparison, Jesus tells his listeners that God is eager to listen to the cries of His daughters.

In Matthew 25:1–13, Jesus tells a tale of ten virgins who are waiting for a bridegroom. Some patiently keep their candles burning, while others are impatient, run out of oil, and miss the bridegroom’s arrival after leaving to buy more. The women here represent the importance of consistent, persistent faith, and all are making their own choices—for better or for worse—in Jesus’ story.

By representing women as full-fledged people, with the potential for good or bad choices, Jesus called all of his followers, both male and female, to a higher standard of holiness. It’s time for us to do the same in our churches. It’s time to discard metaphors that reduce women to objects, female sexuality to a consumable resource, and affection to petals that can be crushed underfoot.

Purity motivated by patriarchy is fear-based, not love-based. Christian women should strive for purity because of its incredible value, not because they think their value as people is tied to how many people they’ve been sexually intimate with. 1 John 4:18 reminds us, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

Purity motivated by patriarchy is fear-based, not love-based.

God is in the business of restoration, not condemnation—we are called to live in the light of true life in Christ, not to dwell in the shadows of shame.

So let’s step into the light.

Author: daughterswillprophesy

A little in love with kitten GIFs, Reese's cups, dragon books, and shamelessly performing the rap from "Lane Boy" (twenty one pilots). A lot in love with Jesus and advocating for his daughters.

5 thoughts on “Object Lessons: A Better Way to Teach Purity”

  1. “And this is what you become when you let them use you.” The teacher’s words rang in my ears. “Let. Use.” He dropped the remaining stem and center of the defiled flower on the pile of petals and continued, but I did not hear him. The words were still ringing, “Let. Use.”

    But I was not asked if I wished to be “used.” The lecture ended and everyone started to leave. The petals of the rose lay in ragged shreds on the floor of the stage, abandoned to be cleaned by some “menial” worker whose name the teacher likely did not even know. The girls filed out and I was left alone with my despair and the pieces of the rose on the stage. No one mourned the rose. Surely God had not created roses just to impress upon us how “dirty” and “sinful” we were to “allow” ourselves to be “taken?”

    I couldn’t help but go to the little flower. We had so much in common. I examined the pile of petals. There was a scent of rose all around the tiny pile of petals. Everywhere that a petal was pierced or torn, the sweet aroma of the rose was released. Some of the petals had been stepped on. Where they had been crushed under the weight of passers by, a little pinkish fluid had spilled out onto the wood of the stage, staining them. I wanted to touch the flower but I couldn’t. My hand hovered over it and then pulled back to cover first my mouth, then my eyes. Too much in common. I wept.

    I was startled from my grieving by a shuffling sound. A wizened old man was approaching the stage, with a broom and a dust pan. He looked at me and then at the little shredded flower. He clicked his tongue, “Ja ne rozumiju….” he whispered softly. “Taught them better than this, surely? Left them better instruction…”

    Still clicking his tongue, he carefully swept what I now thought of as the dismembered corpse of the flower onto his dust pan. He straightened up with some stiffness and difficulty and examined it closer to the lights above the stage. “What have they done?” He asked.

    “They ruined it.” I mumbled. “They destroyed it.” I did not start crying again, but a few tears escaped.

    “Is that so?” He replied, “Who destroyed this this little flower?”

    “The teacher,” I said, “to explain what it means when boys…when boys…” I couldn’t finish.

    The old man looked at me, kindly. “But those are just deeds.” His voice was soft, his gnarled hand fishing around in the shredded petals to lift up the stem and bottom of the rose. “Deeds alter life, and vile deeds do considerable damage to life.” He turned the little stem and fat flower head this way, and that way as he continued, “But only Abba creates. And only Abba can ever truly destroy.” He put the little stem and rose head into his shirt pocket, patted it, and continued his work.

    I watched him, not understanding. He completed his work in silence, sweeping the stage, re-setting each chair in neat straight rows. Dusting shelves and counters. I should have gone to dinner, but I just stayed there watching him. He muttered in strange syllables I did not know. When his work was done, he glanced back towards me and then shuffled back behind the stage. I knew better, I’d *learned* better before, but I followed him, at a distance, ready to run or scream or fight.

    He wandered slowly over to one of the prop cupboards behind the stage and started shuffling through bowls and cups. He examined and set aside many pieces. A kettle, a cauldron, a large brass ashtray, an umbrella bucket. Finally he chose what appeared to be a replica chamber pot. He almost giggled. “This one…da? This is where waste and ruin is put, I suppose.”

    I watched numbly,as he headed to the door at the back of the theater, paused, then continued out into the fading light of the evening. The door closed behind him and I must have stood for two full minutes before following the old man out into the night, certain that by now I had missed bed check, would be missed, and would be in trouble. But what was he doing?

    He walked out onto the grounds, here, there, muttering at a bush, a sapling, a couple of trees. “He’s nuts,” I thought, “and I’m nuts for being out here.” But I kept following him. He finally stopped under an old aspen tree, its spade shaped leaves already making the transition from green to yellow, and yellow to brown, in various places. “I know,” he said as I came close enough to hear him, “but seasons aside, there is a great need. I do not ask lightly.” He appeared to be talking…to the tree. “Voyistynu Voskres!” He sputtered suddenly, looking very happy and nodding at the tree. He reached up and plucked one still green leaf from the shivering foliage of the aspen. “He is agreed. But of course, only Abba may decide.” He patted the bark. “This is a kind tree, a good tree. He is very generous.” I couldn’t begin to understand what he meant.

    The old man very slowly and with much effort folded himself to his knees beneath the aspen tree. He gently moved aside the fallen leaves and refuse, and began digging at the earth between the tree roots, putting little handfuls of dirt into the pot. “Because you cannot stay, this must be quick, like wolves on the hunt, or lightening in the storm.” He said, in that tone adults use when they are certain you know everything they discuss as well as they do. “The tree will help a little, but we may do nothing without Abba. His will, not ours. Always.” He paused and was perfectly still for a moment, his eyes closed as if listening for something. “Nonetheless, I think in this, you may see. When you are finished, though, bring the little one here where she will be safe, da?” I just stood there, no idea how to begin to respond.

    The old man had filled the chamber pot almost to the brim with dirt. He fished into his shirt pocket and removed the remains of the rose. The head and the stem, now somewhat wilted as well as torn, seemed to glisten in the dim glow of the twilight. He made a small hole in the pot and placed the entire piece of flower into it, then added the aspen leaf and covered both. “Mnohaja Lita!” He said to the pot.

    The old man turned to me, “Khrystos Voskres!” he said very solemnly. And as He is…so is this, ” he indicated the pot with a nod of his head. “And so, my dear, are you.” He handed me the pot. As if some spell had broken, I was suddenly of a mind to get back where I was supposed to be. I turned and headed back to the main building, turning back to see if the old man was coming too. But in the dark, I couldn’t see him at all. There were only dim shadows under the aspen tree. Shivering, I hurried inside.

    I set the pot on the foot locker which served as my bedside table. The camp was almost complete and I just wanted to be home. No one seemed to notice that I’d missed dinner or had been gone so long, which astounded me. In fact, no one seemed to notice me at all. I wasn’t even hungry, which was also strange. I fell asleep staring at the pot, thinking about the crazy old janitor. I’d go put the dirt back and such tomorrow. For now, I just wanted to sleep.

    Morning seemed to come as if night suddenly remembered it had somewhere very important to be. I had no memory of falling asleep, no memories of any dreams, and no memory of getting any actual sleep. I awoke ravenously hungry and quite tired. Everyone was bustling about. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and glanced at the pot.

    It’s really silly to scream at roses. But I screamed. I don’t mean that I gasped or squeaked. I screamed. Not a long scream, but enough that everyone around me *should* have at least paused. But no one did. Just as the night before, everyone went about their day as if I were not even in the room. This should have mattered to me, but as the night before, it didn’t.

    On the footlocker was the pot. Or shards of the pot. It was cracked in three pieces, roots spreading over a foot in every direction from its center. Rising up from the pot was a spectacular bush which looked like it should have hundreds of roses all in full bloom. But there was just the one. It was so clearly not a new rose. Every petal had all of the marks of where it had been torn or bent or pierced. And every scarred petal was completely, beautifully, utterly in place on a living, thriving, blooming rose.

    Someone running and crying while carrying a broken pot, a large rose bush, and one single bizarre rose should garner some attention. But everyone flowed around me in perfect fluid motions that edged them just out of my way as I approached, and no one so much as looked in my direction. I ran straight to the aspen tree. Peeling the three shards of the pot away from the bush’s ball of roots, I clumsily stuffed them into the hole and poked and patted dirt around them. I stared at the bush. There was absolute silence. There should have been sounds, it was the early morning, but there were none. I stared at the repaired yet scarred rose, and I was suddenly very angry.

    “Is that it? A broken rose? Is this all I get? Is the teacher right then? Are they all right? Am I broken too? What’s the point of even still being alive if you’re damaged? Defiled?” My tears burned my cheeks. I started sobbing and I couldn’t stop. “Well screw you! Where were you anyway? Why didn’t *you* stop him?” Years of emotion poured out of me. “I at least *tried* to stop him. Why didn’t you fix it? Why won’t you heal me?”

    “Perhaps, little flower, the question which merits an answer at this time is why won’t you let Him heal you?” The old man pointed to the rose. “The Enemy is insatiable. He will take whatever he can from you by any means at his disposal, using any agent of his that he can wedge into your life.” The old man spoke slowly, calmly. I wasn’t even surprised that he was just there. “Abba is a gentlemen. He will not go where He is unwelcome.” The old man’s face hardened into a grimace of contempt. “Your teacher said, “who would want this rose?”

    “But you wanted her. As they tore her apart, you desperately wanted to save her. And do you still not understand? Abba wants her. GOD *wants* the rose. He wants her so badly that He came to us in the flesh and put upon his shoulders every wicked deed and every shame and sin and sickness. He suffered and died for that rose. For all of us. For you.”

    The old man reached over and plucked the rose from the bush. The rose was perfect. There was not a single scar or mark, not even a slight discoloration. “This rose is the absolute vehicle of life, the blended essence of masculine and feminine for an entire species of creation. It is food for some creatures, and medicine for others, and its nectar serves to help sustain the pollinating insects that work to facilitate all of the growth on Earth. … Or it is a symbol of an inanimate thing, an object to be used and destroyed to make an incorrect point about a variety of sins. The rose *is* both things. Humankind forgets it authority to name creation. But which do you *want* it to be? The teacher’s definition, or God’s?”

    “Jesus desperately wants the rose. But do you *want* Him to have it?” He held the rose out to me…..

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That was a lovely piece.. Hopefully many ‘purity teachers’ will read it and see the absurdity of their teachings.
    Why are there so many ‘trampled roses’ anyway? perhaps the lesson should focus more on young men and tell them to stop mistreating girls!

    Like

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